14 January 2011

How the hell can I go on holiday?

In connection with the previous post, my colleague Fabian has commented to me that nowadays, even if someone felt as I did about the hopelessness of their position in being deprived of an academic career, they would feel too inhibited to admit it, perhaps even to themselves.

In fact I myself wished not to violate social taboos, but I was certainly very strongly aware of the hopelessness of my position as the dominant and overriding consideration in my own mind, and it is not realistic to give accounts of what I said, in these early situations, which often had such far-reaching consequences, without mentioning my own mental processes.

I was always having to find alternative ways of replying to questions without breaking the social taboo. So when Lady McCreery asked about holidays, I might, if a direct and natural reply had been possible, have said, ‘How the hell do you think I can go on a holiday at all, when I have been thrown out without a usable qualification, I have no tolerable way of earning money or of drawing income support (as I would not be supposed to be qualified for any job that I could accept) and my college will give me no support in any plan to get a qualification or to get appointed to do anything that I really could do, whether supposedly “qualified” or not?’

So my reply about curling up with a book on theoretical physics has to be seen as an attempt to say something that was true, but not too violating of social taboos, and which would probably have been true even if I was on a suitable academic career track. I never did set much store by changes of scene per se, and the holiday I remember as having got quite a lot out of when I was eleven had included the reading of H G Wells’s Outline of History, and a popular introduction to atomic physics.

If I had been in a normal life I might have considered going on holiday for some particular variation of intellectual input, and because other people considered it a natural thing to do, probably something like the summer school at Grenoble University which I had been prevented from going to when I was 15. So I might have been able to reply to Lady McCreery, ‘Oh, I usually like going to France or Germany, but I might go to Italy next year.’

As for Lady McCreery’s description of me as ‘patronising, offhand and humourless’, to the extent this was not just projection, whatever in my manner seemed to her to support such a description may well have arisen from my awareness of my horrific position, in which I certainly had no social identity. My position was exceedingly grim, and to the extent that my outlook came across, she might easily describe it as humourless. Comfortable or cheerful it certainly was not.

Similarly, when I met Charles’s sister Sarah, if I had had any normal social identity by which to be introduced, I might have avoided the humorous self-dramatisation. As it was, what I said was true of the underlying realities of my position, and would have been so even if Charles had been able to introduce me as an Oxford professor of physics, chemistry or anything else. In that case, there would have been no need for me to give any further account of myself.

Since the time the events described took place, I have observed many other illustrations of the type of behaviour referred to (in fact it has been a constant feature of my life ever since I was thrown out), and I have concluded that it is part of a general syndrome. People seem not to notice your bad position, talk to you in ways which call for responses from you that are incompatible with that position, and then express surprise or contempt when you do not make adequate responses of the required kind – or, when you make efforts to do so without entirely denying the facts of your life, they mock those efforts. It is pragmatically useful to assume that they are not really unaware of the underlying realities, but that they are enjoying the fact that they can put you under socially sanctioned pressure to distort yourself, and can denounce you to others if you fail to do so.